Blinking, multi-coloured lights, frenzied tangles of shoppers, the same songs playing repetitively (gradually bringing you to the brink of insanity). These are all things that make me think of Christmas! Oddly enough, if you were in Jakarta all the above would be present. From a Canadian perspective, the things that would be missed would be remotely chilly weather, family time, and turkey. Before we critique the Indonesian interpretation of Xmas, let’s do a little introspection into how xmas has evolved in our own culture.
I think it would be fair to say that for North-Americans, the consensus on Xmas is that it has been completely stripped of any meaning beyond the commercial. The religio-spiritual element is irrelevant for a large segment of the population due to the increasing secularization of the population. So, that leaves two elements, one is the material, the other is the social. The material is an inevitable aspect in the commodified cultural landscape of N.A. and even the social aspect is not seen by many as an enjoyable part of the xmas experience. Of course everyone loves their family, but I have heard several times from various friends statements along the lines of “No Xmas would be complete without a family fight!” For me, and I’m sure many others, this doesn’t hold absolutely true, but I can definitely relate to the sentiment.
In Indonesia, somewhere around 90% of the population is Muslim. In Jakarta, I predict this number is slightly lower, but still quite high. Despite this fact, every mall is decked out to the nines in xmas decorations. My building has giant blinking snowflakes hanging from the 23rd floor to the ground, and even in the tiny mom and pop shops in the cheaper malls like Mangga Dua (Mango Two), the staff are wearing reindeer hairbands or Santa hats! I’ve also seen a number of rather skinny, Indonesian looking Santas. Also, one unfortunate consequence for the retail sector is that unlike in N.A. where they have you by the balls prior to Xmas, due to the compulsory gift buying in time for the 25th, most Muslims don’t care about buying by the 25th, and so rather than high prices, here there are incredible sales in the lead-up to Xmas, including chaotic midnight sales which run until 3am.
Another ironic departure from the NA celebration of Xmas is the fact that most Christians here go to Church as part of their Xmas ritual. I know that some people in NA do go to Church, but here it is much more common. This might be a sort of assertion of identity, as any minority religious-ethnic group, which is enveloped by a large majority group, tends to do. It seems that in Indonesia, more of the Islamic holidays involve a family trip to the mosque, so this could be a reaction to that tendency.
Oddly, one element missing from the typical Indonesian Xmas is a family dinner. In such a family oriented country as Indonesia (which cuts across ethnic lines) it is quite strange that this part of the holiday, which is absolutely mandatory in NA, is absent. Perhaps it is because the families see each other on a much more regular basis that it is not seen as quite so vital. I know that on my NA side of the family, Xmas was one of the 4 yearly holidays at which family dinners were obligatory. I don’t use the word obligatory to disparage my experience of these dinners, which I always enjoyed, but simply to emphasize that they were not optional (woe betide me if I suggested I had somewhere else to be!).
My actual Christmas was spent at the luxurious Four Seasons having a Christmas day buffet. The food was incredible, despite the hefty $40 price (which in Indonesia is quite high). They even had all the back home classics like Turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce, Roast Beef (5 star!) and a bean salad, which I absolutely had to try as it is one of my mom’s classic dishes (don’t worry ma, you got ‘em beat on the bean salad!). As delicious as it was, no amount of tastiness could fill the void left by the absence of family. On a side-note, there was a table behind us teachers of expats, old white men with gorgeous young Indonesian concubines, and the head codger at the table was wearing a bow tie without a trace of irony! If I was setting up a scene depicting the stereotype of a group of expats, I really could not have come up with anything remotely as good as that table.